Are smart motorways dangerous? How many deaths have taken place on all-lane-running roads - and are they safe

What National Highways says about safety on smart motorways and why campaigners like Claire Mercer disagree

A committee of MPs have called for the rollout of smart motorways to be halted amid concerns about a lack of safety evidence.

The Commons’ Transport Select Committee (TSC) says more evidence needs to be gathered to ensure the routes are safe for motorists.

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Since they first appeared in 2014, there have been arguments around the safety of the roads, which remove the hard shoulder in favour of managed lane closures.

How safe are smart motorways?

The Department for Transport and National Highways say that smart motorways are, mile-for-mile, safer than conventional motorways but opponents say they put drivers at risk of collisions that could be avoided with a hard shoulder.

The main concern among critics is that without a hard shoulder, there is a greater chance of a vehicle breaking down in a live lane and being involved in a collision with a moving vehicle.

National Highways, which operates England’s motorway network, confirms that the risk of a “live lane collision” between a moving vehicle and a stopped vehicle is greater on all-lane running (ALR) and dynamic hard shoulder (DHS) motorways. But, it says, the risk of a collision between two or more moving vehicles is lower.

Its latest data show there have been 63 fatalities on stretches of smart motorway between 2015 and 2019 and a BBC Panorama investigation showed near misses between broken down and moving vehicles on one stretch of the M25 had risen 20-fold since the removal of the hard shoulder.

However, data for 2015 to 2019 shows that, on average, the fatality rates - calculated per hundred million vehicle miles (hmvm) travelled - are lower on all forms of smart motorway than on conventional motorways, where 368 people died between 2015 and 2019.

There are three types of smart motorway - controlled; dynamic hard shoulder and all-lane-running. The figures show that the rate on controlled motorways is 0.07 per hmvm, dynamic hard shoulder routes is 0.09 and all-lane running is 0.12. On conventional motorways the figure is 0.15 per hmvm.

However, the data also shows that in 2018 and 2019 the fatality rate on ALR roads - the Government’s preferred type of smart motorway - was higher than on conventional motorways.

In 2018 the ALR fatality rate was a third higher - 0.19 per hmvm compared with 0.14 on conventional motorways - and in 2019 it was 0.14 compared with 0.13. DHS fatality rates were also higher in 2019 - 0.18 per hmvm compared with conventional motorways’ 0.13.

National Highways argues that its longer-term averages prove smart motorways are safer and that such figures are needed because “single year figures are too low and variable to draw consistent conclusions from”.

However, the Transport Select Committee report says that there is not enough evidence to draw a conclusion either way and has called on at least five years’ of data for every section of ALR road before any more are allowed to open.

That is a view shared by AA President Edmund King, who pointed out that there is currently only five years’ worth of data for 29 miles of ALR road.

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at safety charity IAM Roadsmart, said that despite the official figures, there was a “complete mismatch” between the theory and reality of smart motorway use and warned that currently “it looks like a smart motorway creates more chances for human error rather than fewer, and... the punishment is all too often fatal”.

The same National Highways data shows that serious injury rates are a tenth lower on conventional motorways than ALR routes and minor casualties are also higher on all three types of smart motorway.

What is being done to make smart motorways safer?

In March 2020, the Government announced an 18-point plan to improve smart motorways.

Among measures were scrapping “confusing” dynamic hard shoulder routes, increasing the number and visibility of emergency refuge areas, introducing new stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology and spending £5 million on a driver education programme.

The TSC report reinforced the need for more emergency refuge areas closer together, as well as the rapid rollout of SVD. It also called for ALR roads to revert to controlled motorways with a hard shoulder overnight - a suggestion welcomed by Mr King.

He said: “We have campaigned consistently for ERAs at least every three quarters of a mile and have been pushing for a rapid retrofit programme. With 38% of breakdowns on smart motorways happen in live lanes. If there are not enough refuges and not accurate enough technology to warn of the danger, drivers become sitting ducks.

“We hope that the Government will respond quickly to these recommendations so that action can be taken to improve the safety of smart motorways and the public’s perception of these roads.”

Some campaigners want all hard shoulders reinstated, arguing this is the only way to make motorways safer. They include Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed on a “smart” section of the M1. In response to the TSC report, she said: “We don’t need a raft of changes. We just need the hard shoulder back in every single instance.”

The DfT argues that hard shoulders themselves are not safe places for drivers, and the TSC reported agreed that: “The evidence suggests that doing so could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”

Mr Greig also warned that a mixture of full- and part-time hard shoulders could actually make matters worse by confusing drivers.

He also said that despite the official data, many road users felt unsafe on smart motorways and called for urgent action to change this perception.

He told National World: “No motorway can ever be 100% safe, and the hard shoulder was always a very risky place to be, but a moratorium on any more new smart motorways would allow full analysis of their performance to date and the chance to finally get it right.

“As a minimum that means implementing stopped vehicle detection technology, building more refuges, improving incident response and more road user education so people know how to use them.”